The worst thing I’ve ever written didn’t kill me

Revolver
© Brian Lary/sxc.hu

In the months leading up to my college graduation, I panicked. What the hell could you do with an English degree except teach or go to law school – neither of which I was very excited about?

I took the LSAT, but only because I watched a lot of Law & Order and wanted to work with a hot detective like Benjamin Bratt. Fortunately, I got lost on the way to the exam and didn’t have enough time to eat lunch, ensuring I got a mediocre score and gave up the thought of going to law school.

I’d make a terrible lawyer.

My best friend was panicking, too. She majored in world arts and cultures, an even less practical degree (though she does know how to do a traditional Indonesian dance). So she proposed we apply to teach English in Japan through the JET program.

The application required me to write an essay, which I did quickly and without much care. After all, I was an English major so I could write, right?

By the time I had my interview, I’d forgotten what I’d written. I walked into the room where three people sat behind a table. One of them was glaring at me already.

Not a great sign.

They took turns asking me questions. The angry woman went last, and she asked me something directly relevant to my essay. Turns out she didn’t like it. In fact, I’d written something she found incredibly offensive.

Without going into too much detail, because the experience still haunts me, I had apparently opened my essay with a provocative story. I’d wanted my essay to stand out, to be memorable.

Holy cow, was it ever memorable.

This one interviewer grabbed hold of the wrong end of the stick and battered me with it for the entire interview. But it was mostly my fault. I’d handed her the stick.

The experience taught me a couple of big lessons.

1.  Get other people to read over what you’ve written.

Do not be precious about what you write, unless it’s your own private diary that no one will ever read. No matter how much writing experience you have, there will be times when your words don’t convey what you actually mean. If we always expressed ourselves perfectly, editors wouldn’t exist.

2. There’s very little chance your writing will ever kill you.

Unless you offend someone so badly they become murderous, writing is a fairly safe activity. All the pain is emotional (except paper cuts – *wince*). As excruciating as that experience was – and I did leave the interview blinking back tears – it didn’t kill me. I was able to learn from it. I approached my writing more maturely because of it.

After being rejected by JET, I decided I’d spend a year teaching in Prague until I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life.

And that’s where I met my husband and stumbled into a career I love.

What’s the biggest lesson a bad writing experience has taught you?

165 thoughts on “The worst thing I’ve ever written didn’t kill me

  1. Great post. Brought back memories of searching for jobs. That arena is where one of my stupid-writing-tricks caught me. I was sending out job application letters to many, many schools–yes, I too am an English major who went into teaching. I had a great letter! Personalized to each school. Except when I forgot to change all the reference spots–so in writing to Best College Ever, I called them #2 Spot in the closing. Talk about not getting an interview! Well, one spot called me in to my amazement. In the interview, I knew it would come up, so I asked why? They laughed, understood and were curious to meet me. Lessons? As one person said already–the 24 hour wait rule and get others to read/edit. Ultimately what you say and how you say it are up to you the author, so do not compromise if you are committed to something–but the communication is only complete once someone else has read AND understood. So if others do not get it, then there is something that needs improvement in the message. I have written a lot in my job as teacher and dean for over 30 years, but I am new to this blog business. Most of the same rules apply, but the process seems to run at a quicker pace and definitely offers the potential for a more responsive audience.

    Thanks for sharing–you provoked an answer–a sign of a good writer!

    1. Thanks, Patti!

      I’m so glad you got at least one interview. And I think that’s an important thing to learn – everyone makes little mistakes, and some people will be generous enough to overlook them and make a decision based on your whole application (or, if you’re trying to get published, on your whole story). I’ve seen job applications where the person said they really wanted to work for [different employer] doing [completely different job], and it was obvious they were applying widely and either overlooked those details or didn’t bother to check. To me, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker because I’ve probably overlooked similar things.

    1. Sharing your writing with other people can definitely break one’s pride, and so can writing just for yourself. I know I often struggle to find the right way to express myself and get frustrated with my limitations.

      I’m glad you’re bent on improving and revising. Me too. Constantly.

      1. also, it helps push aside my insecurity. i recapped Skins US for popmorsels.com and it was the first time in a while i had to write for someone on a deadline. my insecurity got in the way big time. all i could think was, this is crap. this is crap. NO ONE WILL WANT TO READ THIS. THIS IS CRAP. it made it difficult, for obvious reasons, to complete my posts on deadline. but they were expecting a post, good or not, so i had to finish it and click ‘send’. that’s hard to do.

  2. Good to know that! Apart from writing my personal essays while applying to graduate school (Engineering major), and those couple of odd communication/English classes I had throughout my educational life, I never really ‘wrote’ too much. And yeah, I do think getting things checked by someone else definitely helps. Oh well, of course – I then had my 150 page Masters thesis that I wrote as well 🙂

  3. A cautionary tale – and one that has provoked a great deal of empathetic response.
    I once wrote an essay daring to criticise Vladimir Propp. My tutor was not impressed and I fear it caused me to suppress youthful independent thought. Now am I older I care less about what others think. But then, my writing is for my pleasure and those who think similarly – and not graded!

    1. I, too, am glad I’m no longer writing for grades! But I do hope to be published, so I still need to listen carefully to what other people think. Glad you found the freedom to release your thoughts from prison!

  4. Great post. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    I think my most traumatic writing experience was when my novel was accepted, then rejected a couple of weeks later after a new editor was hired. It had nothing to do with the quality of my story, just the “direction” that particular editor wanted to steer the line. This really helped me to stop taking criticism personally.

    The other bit of wisdom that has helped the most is to “kill my darlings.” You know them, those bits that absolutely *sing*. Well, I end up editing a story around those golden bits until the story deflates. Better to chop out the bling and make the whole story sing.

    1. Oh, yikes, that’s a horrible experience! I’m so sorry. That must’ve been just awful for you.

      “Kill your darlings” is a great piece of advice. I do the same as you – kill my story by writing around the parts I think are best. I’m still trying to learn to kill my darlings before they kill my story.

  5. I agree with everyone who’s said that you need others to read over your writing before you send it out. One workshop group told me that I needed to provide translations for some sentences I’d written in another language — an idea that had completely slipped my mind, since I understood what I was writing.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Thanks, Rachael! Stepping back from our work and seeing it with fresh eyes is so difficult, isn’t it? Thank God for other writers, especially when they’re patient!

  6. I’m actually planning on becoming an English major, with a view to becoming a journalist. If that doesn’t work out, then teaching is my backup plan. I’ve done quite a bit of writing ever since I learned how, and I’ve been published in a few different venues. I don’t know if I’ve ever really had a bad writing experience (aside from those nasty paper cuts you mentioned), but I have found one thing that absolutely drives me crazy about it.

    I’ve written a bunch of poetry for various contests and just-for-fun anthologies. Most of it I’ve been pretty proud of. But there was one poem I absolutely hated. I had written it in twenty minutes, and I had used the phrase “I’m hitting the hay.” Bad, right? But it was for a grade in middle school, so it had to be done. Turns out, the anthology editors loved it. They put it in their book, forever preserved for me to look at and grimace. Maybe it was better than I thought. I guess the lesson I’ve learned about writing is that old cliche, “Your toughest critic is yourself.” Which sucks, because I can be pretty harsh.

  7. I have no bad writing experiences to share or learn from because I can’t get over my fear. Glad you found something worthwhile to do with your English degree. I’m still searching….

  8. oh man nothing like standing out. I guess you got their attention..which is good… and it didnt kill you and it is a good learning experience. I am also working on my English major…still not sure what im gonna do with it. i love to write..but i have learned that what i write might not kill me…but it does have an impact on others. you can make soo much change with your writing and the power of that is…amazing.. i guess i try to think of that any time i write something.

  9. I’ve learned to have thick skin and a soft heart. Writing makes you vulnerable. Even the bad pieces, still hold a piece of you. We all need to be edited (even the non-writers); that means we have to be tough enough to take the criticism, and tender enough to keep writing.

  10. My worst experience was when I brought my first novel attempt to a writing group meeting and one of the members said my voice was immature and she would never keep reading what I was writing. It was my first ever bad review (I’d only been letting my best friend read it up until then) and I was heartbroken. I didn’t write for two months. But then a new idea struck me. I sat there for a long time, wondering if I wanted to start writing again. I did and I finally realized that if I wanted to become a better writer, I’d have to learn to take constructive criticism. Best hard lesson I ever learned.

    Great blog today, Kat!

  11. I’m sure I have something to tell you – but I can’t remember what writing has almost killed me … 🙂 I do LOVE your writing style – so concise. I know that things I write offend people – but they don’t usually have a stick to beat me with…. I’m sure curious WHAT you wrote …. 🙂 Dang – I guess I’ll never know though.
    🙂

  12. Great post, Katrina! I agree, readers are key. So much so that I nearly made a huge error on a press release I’d written for my day job. I was announcing someone as “Pubic” Relations Director. And no, he was not a doctor. 😉

  13. Well glad it didn’t kill you, and at least retelling it got you FP’d. So are you going to share the story you wrote for your essay? You imply that it’s a bawdy tale, so maybe we’ll never get to see it here.

    Congrats.

  14. It’s amazing the way fate influences our lives, but goes to show you that everything has its place: even disappointment and frustration.
    Now I am waiting for a follow up post on the story you began your essay with – part 2, please!

  15. Funny you should post this after such a startling thing happened to one of my posts on a popular social network. I’d never written anything outrageously controversial and didn’t believe I had started until enraged replies began flooding my comment section. What did I learn from it? Know your audience. More importantly, know your audience’s bias towards what you are writing. Not everyone is as open-minded and on the same page as you are. While it is good to at times write with reckless abandon to a broad audience as a bold statement, if it falls on people who are unwilling to listen, sometimes has the opposite effect one intends. Sometimes the best way to drive a point home is to cater to an audience’s demands of the material, so that even if it isn’t put as bluntly or appropriately as you would like, it is not being read with blinded eyes. Tis my two cents.

  16. After a recent (and actually welcome) smackdown from a friend with a keen eye for editing, I learned to write more simply, tell it straight, and not avoid the necessary details in my stories — even if they’re personal and they hurt. Telling the emotional truth always works best for me.

  17. I never thought about being a writer until some of my dreams started haunting me. When I share them with my friends, they tell me to write them down. So I do.

    It’s interesting, I often think of myself as an extremely optimistic, positive, happy person, but whenever I try to write anything creative- it turns out to be incredibly macabre. My eye caught this post because I rarely think about writing as an activity that has a major effect on me, the writer, until after I’m finished (when I can clearly feel rattled, anxious, accomplished, happy, or whatever- though usually it’s the first two)

    So when you ask the question about “bad writing experience” I’m not sure how to think about it. Emotional connection with something you write is ultimately therapeutic no?

    *Yes I have written some letters, emails, and FB messages that probably should have been completely obliterated…. but that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?

  18. Remember that you can say more in Norway than for instance in the U.S. We have a greater freedom of speech, maybe because we are the land of the Noble Peace Prize…. 🙂 Or, Americans are more aggressive, have thicker wollets, more war experience – and are more used to solving things by taking their problems to court. They do not speak with their neighbours “over the fence” (garden). I do not know how easy it is for the U.S. Government to come here and fetch the people they are upset with, like for instance Mullah Krekar. It is very difficult for them to just come here and pull us up in the air by grabbing hold of our ears. They have their own “ears”, across the fence, since they do have an Embassy here. And, because we are the “great nation of peace” we forgive them for spying on Norwegian citizens, because we have always been madly in love with America, we just don´t want them to know it. Norway is like a 54th (53.rd?) state of the U.S.A. I am not sure how many states you have, if you include for instance Sweden, Denmark… We all love Oprah, Dr. Phil, America´s Funniest Homevideos, a.s.o. God bless them all. So, strive for love and peace, and freedom of speech. Don´t take EVERYTHING to court. Grumpy people with guns. Lay down your burdens down by the riverside, like the Blind Boys of Alabama do. Much better.

  19. And there you have it. Your fate led you to write an essay that the JET person hated, ultimately killing the teaching in Japan opportunity, so you decided to go to Prague instead, thus meeting your husband. Who says anything we do is a mistake? I love how your story so beautifully illustrates that something we might think, in our shortsighted way, is bad, ultimately leads to something wonderful.

  20. Great story, thanks for sharing! I’ll definitely have a friend look over my essays in future, although doubt i’ll take notice of anything they say!

    “it sounded better in my head” is one of my most overused phrases.

    take care xx

  21. I am an English grad too but my work involves writing manuals for the corporate sector. I am caught in between because I’d love to work with books or magazines but it would reduce my hourly rate. I suppose you need to make sacrifices to indulge in passions.

  22. This is probably the best thing for a college student to read. We’ve all written something embarassing at one point in life.

  23. If something’s troubling you. Take a break. Take an exile.
    In no time, refreshment can sometimes be a great thing.
    If you don’t know where you are going.
    Look back from where you came from.
    —-Nomad proverb, (From: Planet Ladder.) Currently out of print.

  24. You’re right to remind everyone that we all, always, need fresh eyes on our copy. I had five “first readers” — friends who are ambitious and talented writers as well as “civilians” on both of my non-fiction books and both times it was extremely helpful, in addition to my editors’ comments.

    You also need to remember that when one person hates it (i.e. that’s some powerful visceral response. At least they didn’t yawn), another may adore it. You have to go find them! I had an essay about my divorce sneeringly dismissed by an editor at Woman’s Day magazine….and it went on to win me a National Magazine Award, for humor, no less, from a Canadian women’s magazine. As we say in New York, go figure.

    Opinion about the quality and publishability of your work is, de facto, subjective.

  25. Looking back on many things I’ve written I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed by what I perceive to be poor writing or logical missteps. When talking about specific pieces with friends I’ve discovered that many of my “mistakes” aren’t even noticed by others. Knowing this, I can strive to be better, but I also need to acknowledge that I am my own worst critic.

    You need someone to call you out on your poor writing, but it helps to get a pat on the back every once in a while, as long as it’s honest.

  26. Great post – really enjoyed it. You made me laugh and also helped me feel a bit better about the times I berate myself when I feel my writing is total cr*p. Then having decided to comment it’s taken me forever to scroll down. Well done …

  27. I enjoyed reading your post.

    The biggest lesson I’m learning is that technically incorrect is not necessarily bad writing, while technically correct is not always good. I’m slowly trying to come to terms with that!

    I also learned a long time ago that a person (uh… me) can know all the rules of writing, but that doesn’t mean said person can effectively utilize those rules in practice.

  28. As a teenager(yeah that was a year ago) I rely on online journals to vent about my relationship with people. And my bestfriend read what I wrote about her. Its just about an immature, jealous me. I got pissed off by her attention seeking antics. It was pretty obvious that it was about her. We had a confrontation. Luckily I’m still her ‘best’ friend.

  29. This is definitely a great lesson. I have learned to get other people to read my writing because I’m insanely horrible at catching my own mistakes. Reading out loud is the only solution to that problem and even then it’s not fail proof.

    I’ve always had the fear that blog writing would keep me out of a good job. There are horror stories in every journalism department so my news blog is pretty much like the feeling you get before diving from a seven mile cliff. . . or so I imagine.

  30. I’ve been a scriptwriter for more than 20 years and find writing an incredibly inspiring process, even when you get wrong. I associate my words with the artist’s palette, the multitude of shades and colors, the bold expressive strokes full of passion, which create a kaleidoscope of emotion and help shape the canvas of the mind. Good or bad any artist canvas always draws attention if it has a soul. Congratulations on FP.

    http://thestufflegendsaremadeof.wordpress.com/

  31. Challenge is the key to finding out your true desires and living your dreams. Without this experience and mistakes we don’t truly live…we are just here. I love your post and I am glad that I am not the only one who has trouble with my writing (being that I teach young children). Your story gives me hope for all things working out just as they should. Great job!

  32. Prague sounds awesome, though! A friend of mine taught English in Japan for awhile, and in Korea… she loved both but it sounds like the people/orgs she worked for weren’t great. She put together a couple of ebooks from her letters home if you want to check it out:

    http://deborah-bryan.com/letters-from-asia/

    Have you blogged about your time in Prague? Maybe with pictures? Because I would love that like crazy. 🙂 I’ve always wanted to visit there.

    1. Prague’s a gorgeous city. In fact, the Czech Republic is amazing. Unfortunately I didn’t blog when I was living there. I’ll have to check out your friend’s blog. Thanks for sharing it!

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